To commemorate the centenary of WW1 I am sharing with you some extracts of my second novel, Ancasta Guide me Swiftly Home’ which takes the Newton family, who live in Woolston, Southampton, through The Great War. In this piece, Harriet, the matriarch of the series, has a surprise visitor, Edward, with whom she grew up on the island of Riduna (Alderney) – Joe was her husband who died in 1910.
I have used various techniques including letters, story telling, conversation and the arrival of Harry Harper, the air correspondent of The Daily Mail, to describe the changing lives of each of the Newton family. Here I use conversation:
“It was with her family around her, apart from Tom and Jack, that Harriet prepared for the frugal Christmas ahead. With no end to the hostilities in sight, and more young men volunteering from the village every day, she remembered Harry Harper’s words and shivered. After Christmas, Hannah and Sarah offered to be trained at Supermarine to join the growing force of women workers who kept the industry afloat, since the demand for aircraft was ever increasing. Harriet’s role was now to look after the children as well as to run the guest house.
Although money was no longer an issue with both young ladies at work, she found there was less and less in the shops on which to spend the housekeeping. They only had a back yard for guests to sit in when the weather was good and no room for growing many vegetables, though she had put some tomatoes in pots and some lettuce, parsnip and carrot seeds in the place where there had been a very small lawn.
One day she was tinkering in the garden to get some fresh air, to avoid spending this spring morning doing the large pile of darning and mending in the corner of the kitchen, when, to her surprise, the little robin came and sat on the handle of her trowel. His presence brought calm to her otherwise troubled world and she gained strength from the feeling that Joe was close at hand.
‘What would you think of all of this, Joe?’ Harriet asked the robin.
‘I don’t know what Joe thinks, but I think that if you were talking to me like that I’d recommend that you be sent away for your own safety,’ remarked Edward, grinning.
When finding no one in the kitchen, unbeknown to Harriet, he had crept out into the yard behind her.
‘Don’t do that to me, Edward!’ Harriet replied crossly. ‘To what do I owe the pleasure?’ she added, unable to hide a hint of sarcasm, referring to the fact that she had not seen hide nor hair of him since before the outbreak of war.
‘Well, that’s a fine way to greet your oldest friend,’ he added, his face continuing to show signs of his unrepentant amusement.
‘I’m sorry, Edward. I was far away. It’s just this horrible war. It gets to you sometimes. I’ll make a cup of tea, shall I?’
Feeling a little braver this time, Edward replied,
‘I’ll have coffee if you’ve got some,’ but he wished he hadn’t made an issue of it as he watched Harriet reach far into the back of a cupboard and spoon out what was obviously the last of her coffee.
‘How are you Edward and how has this war affected your life?’
Edward seated himself comfortably at Harriet’s large kitchen table and began his tale, uninterrupted by Harriet, who sat opposite him, glad of an excuse to have a rest.
‘Not long after war was declared I knew my easy days of being Captain for a ferry of travellers and businessmen would soon be at an end, but I wasn’t sure how it would affect my life. It happened all too soon. My ship was commandeered to be a troop ship and repainted grey. At first it was quite exciting and the enthusiasm of the young soldiers I carried to France, not long out of nappies some of them, I can tell you, was contagious. I found myself singing their songs in my sleep. Since then it’s been tough. I’m always watching out for enemy submarines and trying to close my eyes to the state of the poor sods we bring back.’
Edward noticed Harriet’s face turn pale and thought at first that she was cross with him.
‘Excuse the language Harriet, but you should see them!’ he exclaimed in anger, but when Harriet didn’t reply, he realised his thoughtlessness. ‘And what news of your boys, Harriet?’ he asked more gently.
She tried to regain her composure and forget the images Edward’s words had conjured up for her.
‘Oh, Edward. I really don’t know. Jack’s an engineer for the RNAS and he and his brother left a couple of months ago. The last we heard was that he was undergoing some military training in a place near London. Tom has signed up for the 9th (Cyclist’s) Battalion and he’s somewhere in Lincolnshire.’
‘That’s good. They’re still safe on English soil, then. Maybe the war will end before they get into danger.’
Unfortunately, neither Harriet nor Edward believed that this might be the case, but it sometimes helped to pretend.
‘What about Ernest and Sarah? Where are they now?’
‘Fortunately, Ernest is still at home, working at Supermarine. Sarah and Jack’s wife, Hannah, are working there too now, much to my disgust. Anthony and Jack aren’t too pleased about it either, but needs must, I suppose, and I enjoy looking after their children when they’re home from school.’
After a pause, Harriet was surprised to hear her own voice ask,
‘How is Marie, Edward?’
Realising the significance of Harriet mentioning Marie’s name, Edward was flustered momentarily.
‘Marie. Well, she got religion just after the start of the war and volunteered to help out at the docks with the Salvation Army of workers. They wouldn’t let her wear a fully fledged uniform, her and I not being…. well, you understand……. but they were certainly grateful for the extra pair of hands.’
‘What does she do?’ asked Harriet, ignoring Edward’s hesitant embarrassment.
‘She meets the injured soldiers coming off the ships from France. If they’re seriously injured she writes a postcard from them to their families to let them know that they’ve safely arrived back in England. She gets them to dictate or write the address if they can, before the men are sent on to hospital. Marie and I usually travel over on the Hotspur together, but a neighbour was sick today and so she stayed at home.’
Harriet realised that this was the true reason for the length of time since Edward’s last visit, but decided that she should be diplomatic and change the subject rather than to challenge him, but couldn’t think of anything to say. They sat quietly for a little while, each with their own thoughts, the uneasy silence heavy between them. Reluctantly, Edward decided that he must make a move and return to his ship. He was saddened that they were unable to relax in each other’s company the way they used to on Riduna. All that history between them.
As he stood up, their eyes met and for just a few seconds it was as if time stood still, but at that very moment two children burst through the door, coming to an immediate halt as they saw Edward standing there.
‘Don’t be shy, Timothy and Phyllis. Come here and meet your Uncle Edward. He’s a sailor and sails big ships to faraway places.’
Forgetting his shyness, Timothy came forward and took hold of Edward’s outstretched hand.
‘My dad flies in an aeroplane,’ he exclaimed proudly as he shook Edward’s hand.
‘And what about you, little lady?’ asked Edward as Phyllis went to hide behind Harriet’s chair.
‘Phyllis’s dad mends seaplanes, doesn’t he, Phyllis? Don’t be shy and say hello to your uncle.’
Phyllis stayed behind Harriet for protection but as Edward moved to the door he winked at her and she beamed a beautiful cheeky smile.
‘I’ll call again as soon as I can,’ said Edward as he reached the open doorway, smiling briefly at Harriet as he disappeared down the road towards the Floating Bridge.”
Ancasta Guide me Swiftly Home is Diana Jackson’s second novel, set between 1910 and 1920 telling the stories of members of the Newton family as they embark on their own role on The Great War.